Using Creative Hopelessness to Heal Your Social Anxiety.
“I’m Too Nice!” and Anxious Chickens.
I once saw a beautiful 12-year-old that came to her first session sitting very still next to her mother: back perfectly straight, a serious expression on her delicate face, and a thoughtful, pensive way of speaking. “What brings you to therapy?” I asked her. “How can I help?” “I’m too nice,” she said simply, her words conveying a grave sadness that suggested a life sentence of emotional pain.
This precious soul could have been any one of my clients, of any gender, of any age. Many of my clients are too nice, and for whatever reason, this attribute tends to go with the socially anxious person. Socially anxious people can become way too accommodating – going “above and beyond” in order to create insurance that others will like them. However, this people-pleasing strategy can often fail in its attempts. All too often generosity leads to exhaustion; compassion leads to co-dependence; agreeableness leads to poor self-esteem. As any one of my clients will tell you, I’m a huge fan of the anxious/sensitive person, but I can also see the downsides. As this lovely young person was trying to convey, being too nice comes with a cost.
While it’s laudable to put others’ needs first at times, continuously adapting to the needs of others can comprise a second “layer” of suffering that goes beyond the social anxiety itself. People-pleasing becomes a burden when it is at odds with the person’s available time, resources, values, or wishes. Without keeping the right balance between self and other, being “too nice” eventually compromises the person’s self-care and quality of life.
The relationship between people-pleasing and social anxiety might be difficult to unravel, especially when we try to distinguish a survival strategy from a character trait. Long ago, when human survival was at stake on a more imminent basis, rejection by one’s tribe could mean desertion and possibly death. To that end, there is an interesting evolutionary perspective which holds that we may be programmed with certain “hard-wiring” that drives us to remain in others’ good graces. Being “too nice” might be an evolutionary relic as much as a character trait, derived from this primitive fear of exile. In thinking about this connection between social anxiety and niceness, we can then contemplate: which came first – the anxious chicken or the people-pleasing egg?
It’s not so hard, therefore, to imagine why socially anxious people have catastrophic feelings about being rejected – why they would regard social situations as if they truly have a “life-or-death” quality. But this scenario of annihilation is surely obsolete. Because nowadays, if someone doesn’t like us, it really shouldn’t wreck us. No matter how catastrophic things seem, the opinions of others – even if they are negative – will not destroy us. The truth is, we can exist alongside the perceptions of others, and it is wholly survivable.
Like me, you may be wondering when the IT person going to show up and fix the bug in our computer-brains. We aren’t currently faced with many survival situations, and this is outdated software that clearly needs an update. There are too many “apps” running in the background, and people-pleasing is taking up too much mental space – draining the battery of emotional reserve. But we’ll just have to do some reprogramming ourselves. We need to outsmart this malware by taking an unexpected approach. But how? We’re going to foster a condition of authentic change by using something called, “creative hopelessness,” exploring what it means to grieve over unsatisfied longings as well as our limited influence over others.
There is a Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” and this can apply to social anxiety as well. We have all experienced the inescapable pain that happens when we feel a certain discord between others and ourselves. We respond with uneasiness when we learn of someone’s rejection or disapproval, and we feel its impact, sharp as an arrow. But suffering has to do with a second arrow, the part we can control – and this is the piece that is “optional.” Suffering takes place when we struggle with our pain. The attempts we make to manage distress – worry, rumination, avoidance – only make suffering worse.
Conversely, many people make a heartfelt change from a perspective called, “creative hopelessness.” (This is a term that is used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Creative hopelessness is when we hit bottom, so to speak, recognizing that all the control strategies we used didn’t provide the relief we were hoping for. Creative hopelessness happens when we finally acknowledge the futility of our efforts to control. It’s like taking a big breath and saying, “I have no idea anymore. I’m at a complete loss, even though I tried like crazy to figure this thing out. I so wanted to fix this, but nothing has worked. So . . . where am I now? What happens next?” This act of meeting the unknown by letting down one’s guard is the very best place to be. At last, unshackled from our defenses, we can begin to create change.
Do you think it’s weak or stupid that you suffer so much? Think again, and have mercy. You have been living in fear and self-loathing, and it’s time to be kind to yourself. You have an authentic desire for connection, and this is a beautiful aspect of being human. It is not “weak” to have intense longing for others; it is, in fact, quite precious. It is not “stupid” to become wounded in relationships; it speaks to the value you place on other human beings.
Your longing for acceptance is so understandable, and it has the deepest of origins. Imagine, if you will, your very first hunger; your first reaction to cold; your first experience of being left alone — and the shock of this happening the very first time. Developmental psychologists describe this original trauma – this lack of fit of nurturing responses – as nothing short of emotionally devastating.
The memory of this primary wound recedes over time, although powerful needs do not. In this way, the trauma becomes “re-triggered,” echoing throughout the course of a life. Later, when other longings emerge – such as the need to be loved, understood, and accepted – these, too, feel essential to our existence. But when they go unsatisfied, the trauma reverberates, threatening to devastate us. Each time our desires and others’ fail to coincide, the shockwave ripples, reawakening this original wound. Doesn’t it make sense that you would suffer so much? This is an area of deeply-rooted pain that continues to surface, so try to be kind to yourself.
There are numerous moments, both past and present, when we are confronted with this lack of fit. Sadly, our needs and others’ do not always mesh, and the same goes for our thoughts. There is an inevitable clash of perspectives that will remain between people, despite our deepest longings. But our psyches are more mature now, and we can handle the disappointment. Rather than using forms of mental control, we can stretch ourselves to tolerate the discordance, letting go the hope that other people’s approval should match with our expectations. This is a softer, kinder outlook, one that accepts Reality on its terms.
Grief Can Dissolve Social Anxiety.
Recovering from our lowest ebb requires an authentic process from which to emerge, and such transformation can be attained through the experience of grief. “Why grief?!” you may ask reluctantly. “I was just trying to heal my social anxiety. Don’t give me any more pain!” I understand this response, but please be patient. If you gave me a choice between grief or anxiety, I would choose grief any day. Anxiety stays “stuck,” and therefore, “disordered.” But grief, on the other hand, is a deep and heartfelt emotion. It is universally shared by all human beings, and can be transformed into healing. Grief feels hard, but it doesn’t feel crazy. And the best part is, it moves. Grief doesn’t stay stuck, so it doesn’t become “disordered.”
Let’s take a moment to consider what it is you might be grieving. You longed for a world where you would never be judged. You longed to ensure the approval of other people. You longed to never fall short. You longed to always be perfect, or, at times, invisible. You longed to avoid situations that exposed your flaws. You longed to never have conflict. But you are no match for Reality, and Reality has moments where these difficulties exist. We are always confronted with our common humanity, including its imperfections, conflicts, and misunderstandings.
To grieve is to understand the truth that we are completely powerless when it comes to other people’s thoughts. Cutting through the second layer of suffering, grief puts us back in touch with inescapable pain. Grief speaks to “meaningful suffering,” not “meaningless suffering,” fostering healing as it elicits kindness. It helps us to become more receptive, more able to make a significant shift. Grief dissolves social anxiety; transforming it first into tenderness, and ultimately, release. This new sense of openness promotes a genuine mindset where creativity and change can fully emerge. Creative hopelessness, paradoxically, can make you more hopeful – so remember to use it to heal your social anxiety.
©2018 Heather Stone, Ph.D.
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